Shining the spotlight on the inaugural Tehran marathon
Sipping a glass of watermelon juice and nudging a piece of blueberry cheesecake around his plate, Sebastiaan Straten is in surprisingly good spirits.
His outfit — a bright orange T-shirt expressing his Dutch roots, and a gold necklace shaped as the Persian symbol for truth — mirrors his divided loyalties. He may have been born in the Netherlands, but Straten feels an infrangible bond with Iran, his wife’s home country and a place he once called home.
That necklace is a prescient accessory, as truth has been high on Straten’s agenda over the past 48 hours. It is two days since the inaugural Tehran Marathon, on April 7, hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The story of women being denied entry to the 42km race was beamed across the world and, as the event’s creator, Straten has been busy fighting the fires of infamy.
The attempts at damage limitation have been made all the more difficult by the fact he is now sitting in a Dubai café. Despite having his Iranian visa application accepted, the Dutchman was turned away at Imam Khomeini International Airport three days before the marathon and flew instead to the UAE. He was not present for his own race.
“I am trying to build bridges between Iran and the world but sadly I cannot cross them myself,” Straten explains to Esquire Middle East. “Officially I had my visa but unofficially there were shadowy forces stopping me from entering. I had no arrest warrant, I’ve never been in prison in Iran and I’m not a political figure or a spy.”
The border police attempted to put Straten in handcuffs and force him to take the next flight out of Tehran. He initially resisted their reprimand but in the end had no option but to depart. There was no explanation given for his refused entry. It was an unsettling display of bureaucracy but is, Straten insists, not representative of Iran. “This is one percent of the country,” he says. “It is the other 99 percent of Iranians who I’m working for. Thankfully none of the marathon runners were turned away at the airport, so although I didn’t cross, 144 runners from 42 countries did.”
Runners from 42 countries, including the UK and US competed
Straten finds himself in a tricky situation. He has spent more than a decade trying to give people a glimpse behind the curtain, channelling his deep passion for Persia into a livelihood. A tour company, Iran Silk Road — dedicated to organising trips to the country — came first, before Straten launched the Irun Iran marathon in Persepolis in 2016, an idea born of a desire to create a platform for fellow running enthusiasts.
The Tehran Marathon was the next step, conceived with the aim of ‘building bridges, not walls’ — a catchy slogan that deliberately pokes fun at US President Donald Trump’s infamous election pledge. The race was designed to help bring Iran in from the cold, to show the world that it is no longer an international pariah. As Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ brought global condemnation, Iran’s willingness to open its borders for a marathon brought global praise.
But Iran is a complicated country, as Straten knows first-hand, which makes his enduring love for the country as admirable as it is surprising. It has been seven years since he actually lived there, after being forced from his home in the central city of Yazd in 2010, when the then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tightened the rules on foreign nationals claiming residency. The Dutchman has attempted to return to Iran three times since that departure, each time in vain.
Impressively, the first Iran marathon at Persepolis in 2016, and then the Tehran Marathon the following year, were organised from afar, together with his local team. “It has been difficult but the objective is still clear,” he says of why he persisted despite the complicated logistics. “We want as many people as possible to visit Iran because the moment they see it with their own eyes, their perspective changes. I want visitors to realise that these proud, cultured, Persian people have never been depicted in the right way because of politics.”
And amid the high-profile criticism, many accounts of the inaugural Tehran Marathon do paint a picture of an event that successfully brought cultures together. In one photograph, a British runner is handed water by a sympathetic Iranian soldier — capturing the essence of Straten’s aim to breed understanding.
The Dutchman has a habit of finding glimmers of sunshine in the darkest of clouds. Even when recalling some of the most difficult moments in his life, there remains evident enthusiasm — he is the very definition of an eternal optimist. Which is lucky, because being denied entry to Iran was not to prove the worst of his problems. Around 75 women registered for the Tehran Marathon, descending on the Iranian capital from around the world and hoping to fly the flag for equality. But on the day of the race they were faced with blockades rather than bridges. The Iranian Amateur Athletics Federation — organising on the ground on behalf of Straten and his team — refused to allow women to run the 42km distance, citing laws in Iran that prohibit men and women from competing together in sport. Those who tried were turned away and advised to participate in the women-only 10km race instead.
Dubai-based runner Manal Rostom (right) who was unable to enter the full marathon because of her gender.
One of those removed from the start line was Dubai-based runner Manal Rostom. The Egyptian, a Nike ambassador and poster girl for the brand’s recent hijab campaign, had decided to travel to Iran despite warnings from family and friends. It would, however, be fury rather than fear that characterised her trip to Tehran. “These men came to us at the start line and said, ‘no women, no women’.” Rostom recalls. “At that moment, I was just a monster — shouting and complaining that it was wrong. They just kept repeating ‘you can’t, you can’t’. I thought of just running off anyway but was worried I would get arrested.”
Suffering an affront to her liberties, Rostom gave a furious TV interview in which she condemned the decision to prevent women from participating, with her tearful protest becoming a defining image of the event for some.
“It offends me as a woman, as a Middle Eastern woman; I wanted to stand up for my Iranian sisters. This is the 21st century. That these beautiful, talented women are being prevented from competing, it’s so insulting. I challenged my parents and people who told me not to go, so I felt like I had made a fool of myself.”
Although her marathon dream was scuppered, Rostom was still determined to play her role in Iran’s running revolution. Alongside Iranian women and a handful of other nationalities — including one Dutch lady sporting a banner reading 42km, see you next year — she completed the 10km race. What she saw there gave her hope that progress will be made and, despite the emotional outpouring at the marathon start line, the Egyptian runner has no regrets about participating. “We need to fight discrimination and I know it will change. As an open-minded Muslim woman, I’m very proud of Iran to have launched a marathon; it was just upsetting that we were denied the opportunity to run. Still, change is happening and I feel honoured to have at least run in the 10k as part of a historic event.”
Persian bureaucracy may have once again been a burden for Rostom and other visitors, but the routes of both the 10km and the marathon did at least succeed in altering how its runners viewed Iran. “I was still able to experience a beautiful country that was nothing like what people said,” Rostom recalls. “We ran past a lake with people canoeing and rowing. I felt like I was in Europe at times. Tehran is so beautiful, surrounded by mountains, and really the people were so kind and generous. Next year I want to return and I know then we will see women running the marathon.”
The incident on the start line in Tehran provoked global outrage and among the Western media, the story immediately became the latest stick with which to beat Iran — a PR disaster that painted a far from progressive picture of the country. But for Straten, as usual, there was a silver lining. Rostom’s experience, while far from perfect, still represented the sort of change in perception that he had sought when creating the race. And he certainly believes she wasn’t alone in having her eyes opened. “I wanted to show people Iranian culture and I think we did that,” Straten explains.
“We wrote history by organising our first marathon in Persepolis last year and did it again with first marathon in Tehran. These are small steps in the right direction.”
Unless those small steps become big strides it is likely that Iran will continue to get a hard time from the watching world. At Iran’s first marathon, Straten was criticised because women were not allowed to run — though many still completed the route unofficially. “There was a lady blogging about me not standing up for women’s rights, but that is nonsense. The separation of men and women in sport is normal in Iran and so trying to bridge the gap between cultures is a delicate operation. Women cannot run a marathon if there is no marathon in the first place.”
The media response, first to Persepolis and now to Tehran, has undeniably hurt Straten but he is not surprised by the apparent propensity for publishing negative stories. “A journalist once told me that good news is not news, and it’s true. Who cares about the fact that a marathon had never happened before 2016 in Iran or that we had women compete out in the open in Tehran in a 10km race for the first time? It’s infuriating.”
Spectators show up to support the runners
Press antagonism aside, Straten remains upbeat. The story of Kathrine Switzer is a source of particular inspiration for him. In 1967, the American runner became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon, famously evading the clutches of organiser Jock Semple as he tried to physically stop her from participating.
Five years later Boston officially opened entry to women. Straten is no Semple, valuing equality and pushing hard for it in Tehran. He was originally informed that women would have to tediously run loop after loop of the running track at the city’s Azadi Stadium but flatly refused to comply, insisting he would have boycotted the race and urged runners to do the same if such a rule was enforced. It appeared the authorities’ stance had softened before a last-minute change of heart, which came too late for the Dutchman to intervene.
“It was enormously frustrating but Iran is developing at its own pace,” Straten says. “The steps we are taking are forward not backwards. Next year I’m confident we will see women officially run a marathon in Iran for the first time. You can’t jump 42km from the start line to the finish line. The phrase ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ is really the perfect metaphor for Iran.”
With that, Straten checks his two watches — one set to Dutch time, one to Iranian time — before scooping up his last few morsels of cheesecake and bounding out of the café. The spring is still in the step of this long-distance organiser of long-distance events. For those like him, determined to change a view of Iran shaped by those who have never visited the country, there is every reason to be hopeful, as history suggests.
This April marked the 50th anniversary of Switzer’s acclaimed participation in Boston, a seminal moment that helped level the playing field for women in America. Progress is often ignited by one spark and a half-century from now, those who ran in Tehran may well be viewed as the pioneers for integrating everyone into Iranian sports — and showing off a beautiful country while they were at it.